Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Theology versus philosophical theology

When I was a mathematics graduate student, a mathematical physicist described to me the difference between mathematical physics and theoretical physics roughly as follows. The mathematical physicist is a mathematician who re-does the work of the theoretical physicist, about 10-15 years later, but with full mathematical rigor. So, wanting to make sure that all the mathematics is precise and right comes at the cost of being behind the state of the art. The theoretical physicist, typically, does not worry about rigor. She makes approximations as needed, assumes as needed that differential equations have solutions (after all, if they describe a physical situation, how can they not, she might—fallaciously[note 1]—ask?), and so on. The mathematical physicist is worried about all the assumptions, wanting them all to be laid out on the table. The physicist does not worry. And typically the physicist is right not to worry—her physicist's intuition, or whatever, is sufficiently reliable in the appropriate area, and she knows what area is appropriate.

I wonder if there isn't a similar relationship between the theologian and the philosophical theologian (at least of the analytic variety). For instance, the theologian may not worry about cashing out details of metaphors. She might talk about the Church as the body of Christ without wondering whether this means that the Church is a substance. She can talk about forgiveness without wondering about its metaphysics (a fascinating question for a later post). Of course, she also can ask whether the Church is a substance, and wonder about the metaphysics of forgiveness. But the point is that she doesn't have to. Likewise, the theoretical physicist presumably can stop and be utterly rigorous, and sometimes she does, but much of the time she doesn't and doesn't have to. But the philosophical theologian wants to get as clear as we can on what is behind the metaphor, eschewing metaphorical language as much as possible. She wants to be able to formulate the theological theses as rigorously as possible. And there is a price to be paid for this rigor, much higher than the price for mathematical physics which was just being behind. Many aspects of Revelation are, likely, essentially metaphorical in the sense that there is no non-metaphorical way of putting them without loss. So insisting on putting things more rigorously, she is not able to say much of what her theologian colleague can. But the work of the philosophical theologian is valuable, just like that of the mathematical physicist.

11 comments:

Kaz Maslanka said...

This is very interesting and brings to my mind the differentiation of descriptive metaphor and creative metaphor. Yet I hear little talk about these differences.

Thanks
Kaz

Alexander R Pruss said...

Kaz:

Enlighten us about the difference...

Mike Almeida said...

Many aspects of Revelation are, likely, essentially metaphorical in the sense that there is no non-metaphorical way of putting them without loss.

Alex,

This is paradoxical. Without loss of what? It cannot be without loss of precision, I don't think. It cannot be without loss of content or meaning, since that is what's in need of clarification (presumably). We don't know what the content or meaning is, given its highly metaphorical expression. Losing that doesn't seem to amount to much. So what is lost that's valuable in these cases?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Losing content does seem to amount to much. In one sense, we don't know the content--we are not able to paraphrase the content in non-metaphorical terminology. But we can know the content of something without being able to express it non-metaphorically. After all, we can know the content of something without being able to express it at all. For instance, if I see a weird shape that I can't describe, my perception has a content, a content I may be unable to express in worlds. But I know the content. I am, for instance, able to recognize other perceptions with a similar content. I may even be able to make certain entailments. Thus, even though I am unable to express the shape in words, I know the shape is irregular. Etc. All the things I can say about the shape in words fail to exhaust the content of the perception, however. Two perceptions could be alike in respect of all the things I say in words, and I could still tell the difference between them.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Also, I think that what one cannot put in words one can sometimes grasp by grace.

Mike Almeida said...

For instance, if I see a weird shape that I can't describe, my perception has a content, a content I may be unable to express in worlds. But I know the content.

I guess I'm not sure you do. But that aside, you are talking about two kinds of content here. I was talking about propositional content that cannot be made propositionally precise.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I actually think perceptions have propositional content--they are perceptions of its being thus-and-so.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Pruss,

I think this is a very helpful analogy. My hope is that Christian theologians are in the business of using the best hermeneutical tools to understand Scripture and describe its broad teachings in a systematic fashion for use by the Church. The philosophical theologian, then, comments on the coherence of these deliverances which, in turn, informs the theologian's original judments. This, of course, doesn't happen very often. The biggest disconnect may be that theologians, with few exceptions, don't care to be informed by good philosophical analysis.

My own sense is that many theologians are simply intimidated by analytic philosophy and its curious methods (...curious to the neophyte. The philosophy student who finaly grasps the need for things like tought experiments and possibly world semantics wonders why he neglected to think so clearly before.) Those who aren't necessarily intimidated tend to adopt view of theology that somehow avoid rigorous analytic style analysis--for one reason another it doesn't apply, or is an impious or invalid way of addressing religious thought.

Anyway, I do hope that the handoff and dialogue between biblical, systematic, and philosophical theologians continues to develop.

matt willingham said...

Thanks for the post. I have wondered about the relationship between these two and I'm glad my friend pointed me to your blog.

But I still have questions about the relationship and about your metaphor.

Are you implying that there should be a difference, or simply making an observation? I ask this because I wonder if theology should be more like philosophical theology. Are theologians avoiding the unnecessary details in order to reach a different goal or are they just being lazy?

Using faith as an excuse to neglect a dilligent, detailed pursuit of reason seems kinda lame. And when I say 'faith' I'm referring to the Christian faith. I think the Christian faith is about a search for rational understanding. I think we're not just called to believe, as if belief is an end in itself, but to believe in order to understand.

Any helpful thoughts would be much appreciated...

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think we need both disciplines. I think the philosophical theologian should ideally have some skill in theology and the theologian should have some skill in philosophical theology, but skills are distributed in various ways, and a division of labor is not so bad.

John Kamper said...

Your initial question concerned the difference between a theologian and a philosophical theologian.

"Theologian" has come to mean a person whose studies validate a specific religion, not a person who studies the nature of God.

What do you mean by a "philosophical theologian?"

One definition might be that a philosophical theologian uses reason - not faith or authority - to define what God is. We take for granted the definition of God that was formulated 4,000 year ago when people thought the sun and universe circled the earth. What if that's the wrong definition? That's the kind of question a philosophical theologian should ask.